President Obama almost certainly saw and heard the shouts of several dozen protestors who stood across from Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, where he made his speech touting immigration reform.
The protestors were relatively few in number. In times past, they would have set off warning bells that immigration reform remains one of the most touchy, volatile and polarizing issues on the nation’s political table. Only a short time ago, GOP leaders twisted it as a powerful wedge issue to tar Democrats who backed immigration reform — and especially its cornerstone, the path to citizenship — as coddling lawbreakers, driving down the wages and living standards of American workers.
Polls and surveys repeatedly showed that a majority of Americans across all lines agreed with the GOP hardliners, that immigration reform smacked of a giant reward to those who broke the law and were in the country illegally.
That feeling was so intense that many Democrats ran from immigration reform like the plague. The one Democrat, though, who Latino activists and immigration reform advocates expected action from was Obama. For much of his first term, the word from the White House on immigration was no word. It cost Obama. His popularity among Latinos dipped for a time. That was due almost exclusively to the sense that the president had done next to nothing on immigration reform, yet he still desperately needed Latino votes to tip the White House back to him in 2012.
But Obama did not totally ignore the issue, even though his popularity numbers slightly fell among Latinos. He blasted the GOP for torpedoing comprehensive immigration reform legislation in Congress on the two occasions when it appeared that an immigration bill might be reintroduced.
Obama was not to blame for those setbacks. The crushing problems and bruising fights over deficit reduction, spending and health care reform, coupled with high soaring gas prices and the job crisis, were endless and time-consuming. The fights required every bit of his political capital and arm-twisting to make any headway against an obstructionist, intransigent and petty GOP determined to make him pay a steep political price for every inch of legislative ground he sought to gain.
The 2012 election changed only one thing with the GOP. That was its in-your-face, xenophobic rants against illegals supposedly stealing jobs from Americans and breaking the law. GOP leaders had no choice but to tamp down their immigration rhetoric for the simple fact that Latino voters punished the party mightily in 2012 for that rhetoric, and sent an even stronger signal that it would continue to punish the GOP if it didn’t change at least its tone on immigration.
The 2012 election changed one other thing. It gave Obama the long-awaited opening he needed to go full throttle on immigration reform.
The election result was not the only strong point for Obama on reform. In 2007, then-President George W. Bush was widely and unfairly blamed for making a mess of the immigration reform fight in Congress by not pushing hard enough for passage of the bill. Immigrant rights groups lambasted Republican senators for piling crippling demands for tight amnesty, citizenship and border security provisions in the bill. Leading Republican presidential contenders didn’t help matters by flatly opposing the bill as much too soft on amnesty and border enforcement.
This did much to kill whatever flickering hope there was for the bill’s passage, and undid the inroads that Bush made in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, when he scored big with Latino voters — due largely in part to the perception (and reality) that Bush would push hard for immigration reform. But the GOP learned nothing from this. It was almost as if Bush’s Latino vote ramp-up was an aberration.
The GOP’s metallic ear on immigration culminated in the idiotic quip from GOP presidential loser Mitt Romney that the best way to solve the immigration crisis was for undocumented workers to “self-deport.”
Obama’s battle for the Latino vote in 2012 was never intended to head off any mass defection of Latino voters to the GOP. There was never any chance of that. The polls that showed Latinos less than enthusiastic about Obama also showed absolutely no enthusiasm for any GOP would-be presidential candidate.
Still, Obama’s frontal challenge to the GOP to do something about immigration reform is not only a long overdue move to right a long simmering policy wrong, but a move that could help to shove the issue of what to do about the nation’s millions who are here without papers off the nation’s political table.
There’s absolutely no risk, only gain, for Obama in taking the point on immigration reform to try and make that happen.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.